Hmmmm, I've just realised that I "forgot" (ie was too depressed to bother) to upload my coronavirus diary for July. (There wasn't one for August). So: if you're just dying to find out WHAT HAPPENS NEXT, then perhaps you can watch both! This link will take you to my YouTube Channel anyway where you'll find all my coronavirus diaries. I'm dearly looking forward to the day when the words "corona" and "covid" and "apocalypse" are no longer in our vocabularies. Though I fear that day will only come when we are all dead and the planet is a burnt-out shell of despair.
My writing isn’t going well. If I had to blame anything, then I’m going to have to say it was the pandemic. I did try. I started an Exodus Sequence story quite early in lockdown but it was a mess and didn’t work. I handwrote a short story but it was so poor I couldn’t find the will to fix it up. I spent a long time working on the Exodus Sequence story, its title changed to Enlightened, realising that I’d tried to write two stories together that didn’t work. Successfully separated, I wrote a fresh new draft, feeling quite confident at first. It soon became apparent that it was a poor effort and, once again, I haven’t got the will to edit it.
Where do I go from here? How do I get back into writing again? The depression of the summer is beginning to ease but the anxiety hasn’t. I’m back at work, wearing a mask all day, while some colleagues only wear a mask under their chin. I don’t feel safe. I don’t trust anyone. The world has gone to hell in a handbasket and I don’t want to go out.
If I’m indoors all the time, you’d think this would be prime conditions for writing. People who don’t write and have no idea how the creative process works keep saying that to me: “oh, you have SO much time to write now!” What does TIME have to do with it??
I tried to concentrate on some marketing instead. Not only has this failed utterly but I wasted £200 on a book promotion website that I realised too late is a con. I have really been burned. After all these years, you’d think I’d have some sense. I thought I had checked them out really closely. I thought I’d done my homework and my research. But really, I was just desperate.
So here I sit. It’s September and I have NOTHING to show for 2020 except a new caffeine addiction, a total loss of faith in myself, and a future that involves playing dodge-the-disease every day. How do I come back from this?
I’d like to say I have the answer but I don’t! My solution to everything is to just write. Anything. Garbage. It doesn’t matter. Just get some words on a page. I have LOADS of editing to do but haven’t worked my way up to that. So writing it is. But what do I write if I don’t believe in my ability to write anymore?! Teeny tiny writing. Small and crisp. Just an idea. No need to develop it.
After amazing myself by actually managing to write a few of these, I then googled it to see HOW to write it. Well. Bugger that. I can’t do rules. I’m already chained. I don’t need writing rules to chain myself further. If that means my microfiction is a failure, then, well, heh, so what’s new. But I like it. And I like doing it. My imagination is being exercised. And in the long run, getting my imagination operating again is more important than having time to write.
LOWTIDE is my first ever attempt at writing something huge in a tiny space.
Thirty-six years ago today, I arrived in London. It was a dream come true. It was the beginning of a new life. I was going to be a Writer.
It didn’t start well. I left home under something of a dark cloud, communication with my mother in pieces. Once embarked on the crappy Luxair plane, just before take-off, I suddenly realised that I was making a horrible mistake. I was going to a country I knew nothing about and was completely unprepared for. Without the luxury of the internet, I had no data whatsoever. It was truly a step into the unknown. And I was also going with a guy I thought I was in love with but actually didn’t like very much and who made me feel stupid. It turned out I was right, though in those days, the words “coercive control” didn’t exist.
We didn’t fly straight to the UK but stopped off first in Amsterdam where the boyfriend wanted to meet up with an old friend who had fled to the Netherlands to escape the army draft in South Africa. My mother had bought me a brand-new suitcase with wheels. Five minutes on the cobblestones and they all broke off. Later, we sat on the edge of a canal, the boyfriend and the friend and his girlfriend chatted endlessly about things I knew nothing of. Not only was I painfully shy and lacking in opinions, I’d also had a very sheltered life and was quite unworldly. Suddenly I stood up and ran. I ran away from these horrible people, this horrible guy I’d gone away with, the horrible, grey squalid country I found myself in, running and running and running until I had no breath left.
The boyfriend ran after me and reprimanded me for making a scene, for embarrassing him, for being so impolite and selfish. You’d have thought I’d realise then but I didn’t. I never did. I never realised anything. I just lurched from one bad scene to another. I got away from that boyfriend into the clutches of one much, much worse, and the one after that that almost destroyed me. I spent most of my life running. I ran away from everything until it became a metaphoric escape – nowadays I escape into dreams.
It can’t be a coincidence that I fell pregnant when I was thirty-six. I was, by that time, divorced, working full time in a bookshop, doing an astrophysics degree and still trying to get published. Twenty years later and I have a fab daughter doing an astrophysics degree, I work in a library, and I’m still trying to get published. The best I can say is that I’m still writing, writing, writing.
The first shock I had when arriving in London was the weather. I had been told (by my mother) how much colder it was, that it rained constantly, that the weather was soft and gentle. Maybe global warming had changed things since the 1960’s, but this was not the London she remembered. On the sixth of August, 1984, London was grey, sticky, humid, filthy and utterly horrible. The weather thirty-six years later is exactly the same, only much hotter. Other shocks followed.
The dream of London was a lie. I couldn’t write. I had no education. I’d like to say that in the intervening years these things have changed, that I’ve found my dream, that I’ve taught myself to write, that I’ve managed to educate myself about life; in fact, all that’s happened is that I’ve learned to live with it. I don’t care as much. The word “failure” slams into my head often and I have to pick myself up out of many dismal days and dreadful disappointments, trying to find the strength to go on.
It’s all very well wishing that things had been different. I wish I’d gone to Stellenbosch Uni after high school and read English. I wish I’d lived in Cape Town for a while, away from my parents but still in the same country, before embarking on a more successful tour of Europe. I wish I’d been able to think for myself, to make my own decisions, to find a path in life that actually led somewhere. I wish I’d grown up knowing my father, even remotely, visiting him once or twice in New York, and settling those issues. I wish I could have offered my daughter a better beginning, instead of the abject poverty I found myself in when she was born, abandoned by friends and relations, living on wishes.
Ugh. Once you go down the “I wish” path, there’s no way of finding your way back.
I ended up hating August because it was the month I arrived in the UK. It's the hottest, stickiest, greyest, filthiest month of the year, and the rain – if there is any – is just sky sweat. I’ve tried to get over this anniversary of hell. I’ve tried not to succumb to those feelings of failure every 6th of August. This year it all rolled back: the sky is full of grey, sticky sweat. It’s clammy and hot and horrible. My future is uncertain, my past a hellhole. But for the first time, I’ve decided to change it. I’m no longer the unworldly girl who couldn’t decide anything. Whatever life taught me, it at least gave me stamina.
So here it is: Instead of wishing my life away and not living it, instead of trying to SEE what’s down the road, trying to shape futures out of nothing, trying to force a life to live, I’m just going to –
I’m going to –
I’m going to enjoy it.
I've been trying to find an agent for Honeysuckle Rage and the Everlasting Tree for nearly two years now. In that time, I’ve become utterly convinced that my bright, shining, lovely novel that I thought everyone would like was a piece of trash. But reading this blog by Grant P. Hudson has made me rethink my despondency. Are agents rejecting my work because they think the story is BAD or do they just not LIKE it? Because the difference is huge. What worries me is that agents/publishers/editors only look for work that they like: they’re not judging the stories on their actual merit.
This doesn’t really change anything in the long run – I have to keep approaching agents until one of them either LIKES my work or is able to judge its merit with a cool head and decide that it’ll make mega-bucks (which is ultimately all that counts in the long run.)
But at the very least, it’s more comforting to think that my work DOES have merit that hasn’t been recognised yet than go about convinced that everything I write is rubbish.
I approached an agent in the US recently, the first time I’ve ever done this. Perhaps, I thought wildly, my contemporary/portal fantasy novel will have greater appeal to the American public. As I’m not very good at pretending to be English and feel like a fraud setting my novel in a “quirky village in England” (you can’t believe the research I had to do to get a feel for non-clichéd village life), I thought perhaps my “quirkiness” would be entertaining rather than, well, researched.
The rejection arrived less than a week later.
I have approached a total twelve literary agents this year. In the previous two years, I approached 21 (just for this novel, you understand). Of the 33 total, only 18 bothered to reply, all with bog-standard rejections, their emails almost identical (do they learn how to write these at Literary Agent School?) I’ve run out of agents in the UK who don’t sneer at fantasy. Sadly, my novel (or proposed series of novels) isn’t really Big Fantasy, which makes it even harder. It’s set in the modern world. The magical realm is separate and reached by what is traditionally called a portal (like Narnia). There’s a bit of magic in our world but not much. It’s very character-driven and heavy on relationship building. There are a large number of strong female characters.
Is this all so unappealing?
It’s been over two and a half years since I approached the first agent. I’ve already written the second in the series, though haven’t edited it yet. I had hoped to write the third this year but it has begun to dawn on me that I probably won’t get to it. A year that I had greatly looked forward to, filled with exciting projects, has been crushed by so many outside factors that I can barely get up in the morning. I hardly need mention the pandemic. Then there’s the realisation that I no longer feel able to work in my Real World job. And on top of that, I’ve just been told I may have to have an eye operation for a possible torn retina.
I mean, fuck. How do I respond to this? I don’t know how to keep going. The two efforts I’ve made this year at actual writing have produced absolute rubbish. The immense amount of editing I have to do (which I usually enjoy) has been left to gather dust because I haven’t got the energy, crushed as I am by the events of 2020, not just globally but in my life. I may have felt a smidgen of hope recently, when I got into gear and approached the US agent and did a whole bunch of other “writing career” stuff but the eye operation threat has destroyed it all. There I was, trying to remain positive, trying to stay busy and productive, making an effort, DOING something, when I got steamrollered. And it was a big steamroller.
I recently tweeted:
I'm not sure I can do this writing thing anymore. I've been trying to find an agent for over thirty years now. I've been trying to get people to read my books for a decade. Nothing I do works. I am a droplet lost in a tidal wave.
I didn’t expect much of a response, the word “droplet” being the clue. But someone replied with this:
I think your years of experience show a resilience and strength that the rest of us aspire to! I was feeling this way for the last couple of weeks... And reading your post makes me feel like such a lightweight. You are truly badass!
Me? A badass? According to Google, this means:
A tough, uncompromising, or intimidating person.
I was quite touched to be viewed this way!
While “perseverance” may be my middle name, the other side of the coin is, I’m afraid to say, total despair. And as for the answer to the question I posed in the title of this blog, I don’t have one. People may admire me for persisting and persevering on a difficult path, but for me, that path just looks like the ashes of my life, with all hope lost, a road that goes forever on and on in a talentless void. And I only keep on walking because I haven’t spotted a turn-off.
I’ve been regaling my daughter with tales from The Olden Days, in other words, the eighties and nineties. And a bit of the seventies.
First memory of a computer: my mother’s boyfriend’s twin brother worked with computers (I think) and I seem to recall visiting his office one Sunday and the computers were HUGE. I must have been about ten, which means that, yes, there were computers in the 1970’s, just not in everyone’s home. I had my daughter in hysterics as I described the dot matrix printer.
Drrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr (ten seconds one way)
Drrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr (ten seconds the other way).
Yep. They were that slow.
And as for fanzines: I actually CREATED one in the early 1980’s. There were two of us and I did all the typing on a manual typewriter. The headings and stuff were done with LETRASET! I included a short story called The Abominable Snowman which was about, well, a snowman, except he was tall and thin and had lost his head and instead of a head, he had the glittering lights of a city. Yes. Well. It’s possible my writing was even more surreal and incomprehensible then than it is now. I also drew (while chained to my civil service job) a comic strip called Deartha’s Double Breast. She went out at night and FLASHED people with her DOUBLE BREAST. It was SHOCKING. Well. It made my daughter laugh. The fanzine was called King Ink because the other creator and I were huge Nick Cave fans. I really wanted to review The Cure’s Pornography but was told by the other creator (okay, okay, he was my bloody boyfriend) that it was old hat. I eventually came to England with that boyfriend, who then proceeded to coercively control me. It took me eighteen months to escape him. Arsehole.
Without thinking, I said to my daughter that we had “printed out” the fanzine. Well, of course we didn’t PRINT OUT the fanzine! There was nothing to print it out from! We photocopied it!
“You had photocopiers back then?” my daughter asked me.
Yes. And televisions, telephones and fridges. We were really advanced, you know. (This was the point that I told her about the computers of the 1970’s, the ones as big as a cupboard).
I also told her about the old branch of Forbidden Planet before it moved from New Oxford Street to its current location, about finding it for the first time, going into a room the size of my kitchen and going, “wow, look at all the Star Trek shit!” Around the back of Forbidden Planet was a shop that sold ONLY fan magazines. I realise, now, that this was what we had before websites. There was a magazine for every single TV show that ever existed. And pictures. You could buy glossy pictures of your heroes. You don’t want to know who I smothered my walls with (blush). Needless to say, he had a lot of muscles. I seem to be quite partial to those.
How did we ever live without the internet? Was life any better? Could we have stayed sane throughout the pandemic without online contact? The past is hysterically funny. I hope one day we can laugh about the present. I can imagine my daughter telling future generations how we used to TYPE onto tiny screens to people we’d never met and those future generations falling about with hysterical laughter. Because you know what, it’s bloody nuts.
In which I test for coronavirus. No, I don't have symptoms! I was asked to take part in a survey which I agreed to because I just love the idea of sticking a swab down my throat until I gag and then shoving it up my nostrils til they bleed. The things you do for science....
I was devastated to hear this morning of the death of Carlos Ruiz Zafón. He was my favourite author, someone whom I aspired to in my own writing. I wanted to spend the rest of my life reading his books. I wanted to grow old with him. He was my age so it could have been.
But it wasn’t to be.
I first discovered his work, like most people, when I read The Shadow of the Wind. I have no idea how I came to own this book. I was tidying my bookshelf one day and there it was. The fact that this book, a brand new hardback in perfect condition, turned up so mysteriously is almost part of the story of the wonderful Cemetery of Forgotten Books. There is no other place on earth where I would like more to get lost, that labyrinthine library of obscure titles and forgotten authors. I felt as if I was one of them myself. The book thus appealed to me on two levels: as a writer as well as an avid reader and lover of books.
When I told my daughter this morning of the death of Carlos Ruiz Zafón, I was in a flood of tears and anguish. You hear of celebrities dying every week. It was Bilbo’s turn the other day. But Ian Holm lived to 88. He’d had good innings, as they say. Although The Shadow of the Wind was an instant classic, I felt that Carlos still had more stories in him that would blow me away. I was blown away by Shadow and blown away by its non-sequel sequel, The Angel’s Game. I’ve since read all four novels in the Cemetery of Lost Books sequence, finishing the last one only earlier this year, just before lockdown.
“What is it about?” my daughter asked me when I told her to read The Shadow of the Wind.
“It’s about books. A bookshop. A labyrinthine library of books. It’s set in Barcelona. The people are fascinating.”
I’m not sure if I did the book justice.
I learnt more from Carlos Ruiz Zafón than I have from any other writer. In The Labyrinth of Spirits, some advice is given to a young writer, something I understood instantly:
To write is to rewrite. One writes for oneself, and one rewrites for others.
Rest in peace Carlos Ruiz Zafón. You were taken from us too soon but you left us the most wonderful books to read, a window into a labyrinthine imagination. One day I hope you have the chance to create again.
I reviewed The Angel’s Game here
I wrote about being inspired by his writing here
First in a series of writing tips! These are things I have learnt after many years of hard work. With any luck, others will find some inspiration!
I live in Bloomsbury.
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